Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Meet Joe Black: Ultimate Edition (1998)
Studio Line: Universal Studios - No one can die - while he loves!

Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) has it all - success, wealth and power. Days before his 65th birthday he receives a visit from a mysterious stranger, Joe black (Brad Pitt), who soon reveals himself as Death. In exchange for extra time, Bill agrees to serve as Joe's earthly guide. But will he regret his choice when Joe unexpectedly falls in love with Bill's beautiful daughter Susan (Claire Forlani).

Director: Martin Brest
Cast: Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Claire Forlani, Jake Weber, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeffrey Tambor
Box Office: Budget: $90 million. Opening Weekend: $15.017 million (2503 screens). Domestic Gross: $44.522 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1 & DTS 5.1; French Dolby Digital 5.1; subtitles English, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 18 chapters; rated PG-13; 180 min.; $26.98; street date 7/17/01.
Supplements: Death Takes A Holiday Feature Film; “Spotlight On Location” Featurette; Cast and Filmmakers; Photograph Montage; Production Notes; Trailers; DVD-ROM Materials.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Thomas Newman

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B/B+

Back when Meet Joe Black hit screens in November 1998, I did not intend to see it. Although I like its stars, the movie received rather weak reviews, and the subject matter didn’t really interest me. Add to that the fact the film clocked in at three hours and it seemed likely Universal wouldn’t sell me a ticket.

However, circumstances conspired to get me into a showing. Sometimes you’re just in the mood to go to a movie, and that’s when you’ll take in almost anything you can find. MJB was near the end of its disappointing theatrical run - the flick took in only $44 million, which was a poor total for a star-vehicle such as this with a $90 million budget - and I’d already seen everything else of interest. As such, my then-girlfriend and I settled in for a screening of this apparent clunker.

To my surprise, I actually enjoyed MJB. While the film didn’t seem to be a classic, it offered enough charm and appropriate drama to earn my respect. I couldn’t understand why the movie endured such a critical lambasting, as it really was a fairly entertaining experience.

Now that I’ve watched MHB again, I still think it’s a decent film, but I better understand the flick’s problems. Ultimately, the movie worked because of a strong cast and an interesting concept, but some aspects of it ensured that the experience would be less than engrossing.

Based on 1934’s Death Takes A Holiday, Meet Joe Black focuses on enormously successful media mogul William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins). As he approaches his 65th birthday, he begins to hear a strange disembodied voice say “yes” to him, and it subsequently expands into other statements. Simultaneously, one of his daughters (Allison, played by Marcia Gay Harden) actively plans an extravagant party for her dad, while the other (Susan, portrayed by Claire Forlani) deals with matters of the heart. She’s involved with Drew (Jake Weber), one of her dad’s advisors, but she clearly feels no spark or passion. Bill encourages her to seek a brighter, wilder love, just like the one he shared with her mother.

As the day progresses, Susan indeed seems to find someone who may cause those feelings when she encounters a hunky dude (Brad Pitt) in a coffee shop. Clearly intrigued with each other, the two head their separate ways after coffee, and Susan doesn’t see what happens to her potential beau; he gets badly slammed by a couple of cars.

However, this man soon reappears on the scene; as it happens, Death simply took his body so he could spend a few days on Earth. Apparently Death is curious to understand the human experience. Death tells Bill his days are numbered, but he can have a little extra time if he acts as Death’s tour guide.

Hesitantly, Bill agrees to do so, and his reluctance becomes even greater when a romance grows between Death - referred to as “Joe Black”, and his real identity hidden to all but Bill - and Susan. Bill’s last few days are further complicated by business concerns; his board wants him to sell to a larger media conglomerate, but he refuses to destroy the business he created.

If you read this synopsis and think that the plot seems awfully thin to sustain a three-hour movie, you’re right. Meet Joe Black doesn’t have enough action to make the entire flick interesting, and some parts of it seemed to be tacked on and forced. The entire subplot that involved the business sale appeared to be totally unnecessary. After all, this was supposed to be a film that shows Death’s experiences among humanity, and there was no reason to spend all that time on such a useless part of the tale.

Many portions of the movie ran on much longer than they needed to go. Entire chunks of the film felt as though they were padded. For example, Bill’s speech to Susan about romance and passion was easily twice as long as it needed to be, and the initial meeting between Death and Bill also rambled along seemingly without end. The film was filled with these kinds of moments, and more severe editing would have made the flick much more stimulating and effective.

And yet, I still thought that Meet Joe Black was a reasonably compelling experience. Largely, this occurred due to the cast. Hopkins brought a wonderful humanity to Bill, as he made the curiously-underwritten role seem more alive and rich than should have occurred. The film revealed relatively little about Bill’s life and times, which was a strange choice since the story often concerned itself with his personal reflections. However, Hopkins was able to fill in the blanks with his performance; although he never revealed much information, his attitudes and demeanors helped make the role become realistic and believable.

At times, Pitt seemed a bit forced and precious as Joe. This was largely a “fish out of water” part, as we had to watch Death experience all sort of new sensations. Oddly, the film often downplayed these instances, but they still occurred fairly frequently, at least during the early parts of the tale. Pitt appeared somewhat cutesy during some of these early scenes, but he soon achieved a nice sense of character. Pitt made Joe seem appropriately wide-eyed but also maintained a good sense of somber menace that would come with such a personality as Death.

Harden got the film’s most thankless part as underloved daughter Allison, and it was also the role that contained the most opportunities to become cartoonish and annoying. During much of the film, we see Allison as a superficial party planner, and these characteristics didn’t exactly lend heft to the role. However, Harden added depth and personality to the part and she ensured that Allison would become surprisingly endearing and sympathetic.

Jeffrey Tambor also achieved a nice level of sincerity in the potentially buffoonish role of Allison’s semi-loser husband Quince, while Weber seemed to be appropriately scummy as Drew. Actually, although his vague nastiness meant that he appeared appropriate for the corporate world, it ensured that his original pairing with Susan made no sense. Granted, the film needed a bad match for her so she could meet her love connection, but I still found it hard to swallow that those two would ever interact positively.

On second thought, maybe their pairing wasn’t so improbable since Susan seemed so lifeless. Forlani is stunningly gorgeous, but I have yet to see evidence that she can act, and her work in MJB offered its only weak link from this side. Forlani seemed stiff and inert as Susan, and she imbued the character with little spark or joy to make us care for her. Ironically, Harden got the much less interesting role, but at the end of the day, Allison seemed much more compelling than did Susan. Admittedly, Susan was supposed to be at something of a crossroad in her life, so Forlani’s somewhat confused and nervous presentation occasionally made sense, but frankly, I don’t think these attitudes were intentional. Perhaps eventually Forlani’s acting will catch up with her beauty, but I saw no evidence of this during MJB.

Meet Joe Black is really a hard film to firmly recommend. On paper, its flaws definitely exceed its positives. As you could tell from the preceding paragraphs, it was much easier for me to enumerate its problems; they were fairly concrete, while the movie’s charms could be more ethereal. I guess that was why I ultimately liked Meet Joe Black. For all its concerns, it still provided an oddly moving and involving look at life.

The DVD:

Meet Joe Black appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although a few modest concerns appeared, as a whole this film provided a very solid picture.

Sharpness seemed to be virtually immaculate. A few wide shots displayed extremely minor softness, but these instances were very rare. Overall, the image looked nicely crisp and detailed. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, but I did discern some modest edge enhancement at times; the latter issue caused faint ringing around some actors. Print flaws also appeared to be minor. I saw light grain during some interior shots, and some occasional examples of speckles and grit popped up, but the majority of the movie seemed to be clean and fresh.

MJB used a warm, natural palette for the most part. That meant I didn’t see many bright hues, but the colors remained solid and accurate nonetheless. Much of the movie featured a golden glow, and the DVD replicated this nicely. Colors displayed no concerns, as they always appeared rich and distinct.

Black levels seemed quite dark and deep as well, and shadow detail usually came across as appropriately opaque but not excessively thick. One early shot in Parrish’s bedroom looked a little dim, but otherwise these scenes were nicely rendered. Ultimately, Meet Joe Black provided a very satisfying visual experience.

As with all of the other Ultimate Editions, Meet Joe Black offered both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 soundtracks. To my ears, these two sounded virtually identical. As I’ll relate, MJB won’t replace Saving Private Ryan or Twister as my demo disc, and the inclusion of the two soundtracks seemed to be somewhat unnecessary; this was such a modest track that any positives offered by one system over the other would likely be rendered moot. Nonetheless, for those who are interested, we do get both tracks on MJB. Some may disagree, but I couldn’t detect any substantial differences between the DTS and the Dolby Digital mixes.

As I already mentioned, the soundfield for MJB was a very modest affair. Other than music, much of the mix seemed to rarely venture outside of the center speaker. The vast majority of the speech stayed in the middle, and many of the effects remained close to home as well. During a few scenes, those latter elements broadened out fairly well. For example, helicopter shots opened up the mix, and the segments that related to the birthday party also provided moderate spread across the forward channels. A little panning occurred on city streets demonstrated decent panning as cars drove past.

For the effects, surround reinforcement was exceedingly minor. The track stayed heavily biased toward the forward spectrum, and any usage of the rears seemed to be mild. Even during a fireworks display - a good occasion to open up the track - the audio stuck to the front for the most part. While I didn’t expect an effects extravaganza, MJB seemed almost claustrophobic in the manner in which it snugly held onto those elements.

Happily, the score often opened up the piece to a small degree. Thomas Newman’s music showed fine stereo separation across the front channels, and the surrounds added a nice level of breadth and reinforcement to his work. At times the rears really did embrace the score and make it swell up all around me.

Audio quality seemed to be solid. Some louder speech came across as slightly shrill, but most dialogue sounded nicely warm and natural, and the lines showed no other signs of edginess. I also detected no problems related to intelligibility. Since they were such a small aspect of the mix, it could be hard to judge the quality of the effects, but they displayed no concerns, and louder elements such as helicopters and fireworks packed a modest punch; they didn’t light a fire under the film, but they seemed to be clear and accurate.

Again, the score provided the finest aspects of the soundtrack. The music appeared nicely rich and lush throughout the film. Strings sounded smooth and lovely, and the entire track provided fairly positive dynamic range. Ultimately, Meet Joe Black provided a subdued auditory affair, but the result fit the movie and seemed to be satisfying.

Of all Universal’s new Ultimate Editions, Meet Joe Black most improves upon the original DVD. Actually, that release included most of the pieces we find here, but the UE adds one significant extra that makes it much more interesting. All supplements that appear to be new to the UE will be noted with an asterisk; as far as I can tell, the UE omits nothing found on the original DVD, so happily I won’t have to discuss that issue.

On DVD One, we only find a smattering of supplements. Cast and Filmmakers offers some reasonably decent biographies for director Martin Brest and actors Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Claire Forlani, Jake Weber, Marcia Gay Harden, and Jeffrey Tambor. These have been updated to reflect work accomplished since the spring 1999 release of the original MJB DVD.

In addition, some text Production Notes provide a fairly solid look at the genesis and creation of the movie. The DVD’s booklet adds a few *comments as well, but these mainly discuss the UE itself.

Also on DVD One we discover some DVD-ROM materials. The original *website for MJB appears on the disc. In that area, you’ll get “Story”, which unsurprisingly relates the movie’s plot and some credits, while “Cast” gives us biographies of the same six actors found on the main “C&F” area. These are more extensive discussions of the performers, though they haven’t been updated; as such, we learn that Pitt “is currently in production on Fight Club” and Hopkins “is currently shooting Titus”.

Behind the Scenes offers another set of production notes, and these were fairly detailed and interesting. That area also provides short biographies of director Brest and 12 other crew members.

The DVD-ROM department of MJB includes the standard link to sign up for Universal’s “DVD Newsletter”, and it also features connections to the websites for Universal Studios, Universal Theme Parks, Universal Home Video and Universal Pictures. Finally, we find the semi-standard *“Script to Film” feature. This shows the movie in a small box on the left side of the screen, while the original script appears on the right.

As we move to DVD Two, we discover that the same DVD-ROM features also show up there. In addition, we locate the UE’s most significant extra. 1934’s *Death Takes a Holiday, the movie that inspired Meet Joe Black, appears on this disc in its entirety. That’s right - it’s not just some excerpts from the older film. Nope, we get the whole thing, for better or for worse.

Overall, I thought it was “for better”. As I watched DTAH, it became more and more clear that the two films didn’t share many similarities beyond the concept of a visit from Death in human form, but that didn’t mean that the older flick wasn’t interesting. I thought DTAH played up the comedic aspects better, especially since this movie made it clear that Death really did take a holiday. In MJB, the film largely skirted the issue in regard to how Death could do his job; it related some mumbo-jumbo to let us know that Death could be in more than one place at the same time.

Actually, that makes sense; if Death is to take away all of the deceased, inevitably he’ll need to multitask. However, DTAH took a more fun approach, as apparently no one on Earth died during Death’s stay among humanity. The film played this for all it was worth as we see potential tragedies that occur without carnage.

DTAH also moved at a much quicker and more appropriate pace than did MJB; at 80 minutes, it ran less than half as long as its successor, so obviously it couldn’t progress at the same sluggish rate. However, this rapid development left little time for character development, soul or emotion. For all its flaws, MJB offered a nicely heartfelt and moving little piece, and DTAH couldn’t touch it in that department.

Of course, Death Takes A Holiday also can’t provide picture or sound that remotely compare to the newer film. As a whole, I thought the movie looked decent for its age, but it still manifested a slew of concerns. Sharpness varied from fairly solid to rather soft; scenes became fuzzy and tentative for no apparent reason. Black levels also seemed to be somewhat erratic, though they were generally acceptable. Contrast was rather mushy and ill-defined as well; the movie rarely offered the nice silver tone I’d like to see.

As one expects from a movie of this era, print flaws provided the most substantial problems. None of these were extreme issues such as large scratches, tears or bad blotches, but DTAH featured a slew of smaller defects that added up to something more substantial. Scads of speckles and marks appeared throughout the film, and these were an almost-constant presence.

The monaural soundtrack of Death Takes A Holiday also displayed a variety of concerns. Sound quality tended to seem rough and harsh, and it offered a high level of noise. Humming, clicks, pops and other distractions cropped up throughout the whole film. Dialogue remained acceptably intelligible, but the mix seemed to be rather flawed. Overall, I can’t complain about the weak quality of a movie that’s as old as my Father - and he’s old! - but I still think Death Takes A Holiday could have used a better cleaning.

Nonetheless, I was exceedingly happy to find it on this Ultimate Edition, as it provided a fine supplement. In addition, DVD Two adds a few other extras, most of which appeared on the original release. “Spotlight On Location” gives us a decent 10-minute and 15-second featurette about Meet Joe Black. It includes clips from the film, shots from the set, and interviews with principals such as Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, and Martin Brest. As always, the emphasis remains on the promotional side; “SOL” programs exist to tout their movies, so don’t expect great depth or detail. Nonetheless, the show for MJB was somewhat more interesting than most, and it was good to learn a little more about the production and the actors’ methods.

Next we find a *Photograph Montage. This six-minute and 15-second program shows a variety of publicity stills and production shots from the film, all of which are accompanied by the movie’s score. None of these were terribly stimulating, but it’s an acceptable addition to the package.

After the movie’s Theatrical Trailer, DVD-Two duplicates some of the features found on the first disc. It also tosses in the “Production Notes” and “Cast and Filmmakers”. Lastly, in the “Recommendations” area, we discover trailers for Brest’s Scent of a Woman and Pitt’s 12 Monkeys.

While I wish that the new “Ultimate Edition” DVD for Meet Joe Black offered more information about the film itself - such as an audio commentary - I still was very pleased with this package. The movie had a variety of flaws, most of which related to its excessive length, but I nonetheless thought that it was strangely watchable and compelling; I wouldn’t call it a great flick, but it worked for me. The DVD provided strong picture with subdued but solid sound and one very special extra. If you don’t own the prior DVD of Meet Joe Black, this one merits your attention.

Of all Universal’s Ultimate Editions produced to date, Meet Joe Black is the most appealing package. All of the others added some minor bits to the original DVDs; some are better than others, but none substantially improved upon the old sets. That wasn’t the case with MJB. The inclusion of Death Takes A Holiday - the film upon which MJB was based - made this new Ultimate Edition a very appealing piece. As such, I think that owners of the old DVD should strongly consider the upgrade to the Ultimate Edition; if you’re a fan of MJB, you’ll want to check out more about its origins. As a whole, I have very mixed - and often irritated - feelings about Universal’s Ultimate Editions, but Meet Joe Black is one that seems to be very worthwhile.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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